Thursday, August 25, 2011

Saving Their Lieutenant by Charles Schreyvogel

I have been enjoying our time in the American Western frontier so much that I think we’ll stay there throughout the week.

Wits as diverse as Gene Autry (1907-1998) and Cole Porter (1891-1964) have made sport of the drug store cowboy, and a quick look at your correspondent would guarantee a snort of derision if any affectation were made of being a ‘real Western character.’  (The Upper West Side of Manhattan, perhaps, but no further!)

However, a deep and abiding love for the myth of the American West can be a potent and nourishing thing.  I have been entranced by the West ever since first researching a novel that would include cowboy star Tom Mix (1880-1939) and that has led to a lifelong love affair with Buffalo Bill Cody (1846-1917), Western movies, classic Western television and radio shows, and, of course, Western art.

It seems that many of the artists that have made the most substantive contributions in defining the way we think of the mythic American West have been tenderfeet, or worse, what would now be called Eastern Liberal Elites.  Figures as diverse as Owen Wister, Ned Buntline, Zane Grey and Frederick Remington were all Easterners.  To that list we must add painter Charles Schreyvogel (1861-1912). 

Schreyvogel spent most of his life an underappreciated (and underpaid) painter.  He grew up in New York’s Lower East Side, the poor son of German immigrant shopkeepers.  Unable to afford formal art training, Schreyvogel taught himself how to draw.  He won the Thomas Clarke Prize in 1901 at the annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design.

Schreyvogel was enraptured by the myth of the West, then gaining terrific potency through dime novels and Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West.  A visit to Cody’s Wild West was a life-changing event for the young artist.  Schreyvogel would later make several trips West to paint Indians, but Cody and his theatrical milieu were his real creative wellspring.  He was a frequent guest at the Cody home, and his work is more a homage to the idea of the Wild West than a realistic depiction of the sort found in Russell and Remington (who hated Schreyvogel as a poseur).  In fact, one of his paintings, The Summit Springs Rescue, shows Cody in action against the Cheyenne. 

Schreyvogel’s paintings of the West now reside in the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma, and the Gilcrease Museum, also in Oklahoma.  Since the American West is filled with many ironies, it is irresistible to point out that many of these classic Western paintings were created in Schreyvogel’s studio in Hoboken, New Jersey.  (Annie Oakley was also a longtime New Jersey resident, living in Nutley.)

Saving Their Lieutenant is typical of Schreyvogel’s work.  It is a scene of dynamic action, seemingly coming right towards the viewer (a recurring motif in his work and clearly influenced by the Wild West shows of the era).  Horses and cavalrymen are clearly and cleanly depicted, while the barren Western landscape is rendered in a few economical strokes of color and detail.  The high country of the background is so subtle as to almost meld with the horizon point, creating the illusion of limitless depth and space to his vision of the West.

It takes perhaps a second glace at the painting to realize that the figure in the foreground is actually cradling his commanding officer in the crook of his arm.  The ‘hero’ of the painting manages to keep his lieutenant mounted while fighting off the suggested hoards of rampaging Native Americans in the background.  This is, perhaps, illustrative of Schreyvogel’s strongest quality, and the biggest difference between him and Russell and Remington.  Where Russell paints a lyrical and idyllic West, and Remington a West of hardship and travail, Schreyvogel’s West is a land of heroism.  He is the first great American painter influenced by the myth of the West rather than its actuality, and, as such, has become something of a mythic figure himself.

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